Having said that, we’ve all, or nearly all of us, embraced the kiss over the last few decades and good for us. Although I could digress for a while there and talk about the nuances of a single kiss over multiples, the air kiss, the kiss on the cheek, the hug – but that’s one for another post sometime.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to her small grandson. No, wait – she introduced him to me, of course (oh, the nicety of who to mention first on these occasions and the number of times I get it wrong, not because I don’t know but because I just dive in cheerily without thinking). She was slightly embarrassed, I could see, at having to remind him to shake hands, but he is only four and a little shy. But she’s right to insist on it, because it makes it a proper greeting from person to person and doesn’t sideline him. It puts us on an even footing and shows mutual respect and, as he grows older, will relieve him of the awkwardness of wondering how a stranger will expect to be greeted.
This boy is undoubtedly destined to go to a leading public school and end up something of a big cheese somewhere, but that only makes it the more useful for the children of lesser people like me to know what’s what. Pugsley, for example, is going through the slightly awkward phase of being uncomfortable with hugs and kisses unless they’re from his parents, but hasn’t got the confidence at present to talk his way through a social situation. However, since I started shaking his hand when we meet, he’s felt a lot more relaxed and doesn’t hang back any longer, afraid I might start kissing him because – well, grannies are bristly and smell faintly of wee, don’t they, by their very nature? And, I hope, he will gather that it is never an incorrect thing to do when meeting someone for the first time. Although I do look forward to the day he is less self-conscious and gives me a hug, at least.
I’m sounding very formal and, if you have met me, you’ll know that I’m not at all. However, slight formality, like etiquette, is meant to ease things, not make them more difficult. And impressions do matter – and do I have an example? Dear hearts, what I say is normally evidence-based.
When the high school converted to academy status, the Head thought it was a good time to introduce – well, not a dress code as such, but an expectation of suitable dress. Most teachers already dressed professionally, but some were quite casual. He reckoned that jackets and ties should be the norm for the men – after all, they are for the pupils. This caused no controversy, it was appreciated that it sets a good example. But not all the more senior teachers were quite comfortable. A few weeks into the term, I bumped into one, who I’d never seen in anything but casual clothes, wearing a dark suit and I remarked on how smart he looked. I know him reasonably well (back to modes of greeting: outside school, we’d greet each other with a kiss on the cheek), enough to make a moderately personal remark. He said gloomily that he’d bought a new suit, doubling his formal wardrobe. The next week, I saw him again at a meeting and he came over to talk to me. He’d always hated wearing a suit, he said, he felt self-conscious and it put a barrier between him and others, or so he felt. But now he’d taken to wearing one daily, he realised that people who didn’t know him very well saw him differently – that is, he was treated with more respect, listened to more closely, was being treated as a person to be reckoned with – which he certainly is, I’ve got the utmost respect and liking for him.
But if it had taken a clever and able man until his early fifties to realise this, it’s not surprising that the average teenage pupil at a comprehensive school doesn’t get it either. Which puts them at a disadvantage at interviews, for a start. Whether it should or not is another matter. It simply does. Equality means going up, not down, because people form judgements whether they know they do or not.